‘Black Mountains’ walk – Welsh English border

Another few days off with good friends and we chose the Black Mountains on the England Wales Border as the area we enjoyed last year and in which wanted to do some more exploring. Again we stayed in Hay-on-Wye which is just magical. Can’t think of anywhere better to spend an evening after a day on the hills.

The walk we chose is a 14 mile ridge route starting at Gospel Pass a few miles S of Hay meandering S to the village of Crickhowell (map below). Having parked in the Car Park at the top of the pass we headed W uphill to ‘Twmpa’ aka ‘Lord Hereford’s Knob’, then headed SW along the fantastic ridge (I would like to say the views were great but they weren’t. We were in October fog from the get-go and only lifted briefly at lunchtime). The path flattened out on the scarp edge until we reached the three mile mark and our route turned roughly S – again following the ridge edge. A further two miles and we reached the highest point of the route at ‘Waun Fach‘ (2,600 ft). From here we turned right roughly W toward ‘Pen Trumeau‘. Some of the path is boggy but not too bad, particularly given we had a week of rain beforehand. Other parts of the path have been overhauled with a grit surface and drainage ditches, presumably to mitigate the impact of erosion. All in all this is pretty easy walking if wearing decent footwear. The fog briefly lifted and we were able to take in the really fabulous views. This place has grandeur. Then just as quickly we were again in the thick of it. We had map and compass but the paths are pretty obvious and the Viewranger app on iphone worked well throughout.

Not the greatest weather for photo opps
The saddle at six miles, a great place for a wild camp

At six miles we reached a small saddle which offers decent paths off the hill both E and W. This would make a great spot for a breezy wild camp. At seven miles we reached the highest part of ‘Mynydd Llysiau’ and the path continued S bearing right past ‘Pen Twyn Glas’, and at 9 miles ‘Pen Allt Mawr’ after which we took in the spur to the W. At 11 miles ‘Pen Cerrig-galch’ marks the last climb up (on a nicer day a great place to perch for a while) before the path meanders roughly S to the W of Table Mountain downhill all the way then dog-legging into pasture and woods before hitting a B road off which a small residential road leads into Crickhowell.

We really were hoping for better weather rather than a yomp through a low cloud base but it made for a mini adventure. I will certainly be back to walk this breathtaking route again when the weather is a little more predictable and the incredible views revealed in full. A late afternoon start and a wild camp 6 miles in really appeals.

Route starts at SO 235 350

Salomon ‘X Ultra 3 GTX’ Shoe

For the past few years my primary footwear for backpacking has been the Garmont ‘Trail Beast’ shoe which is supportive, has a wider than normal fit and is very resilient but isn’t that comfortable on descents. I have several pairs but as they wear out I was keen to find an alternative for my usual three season trips. I found the Salomon ‘X Ultra 3 GT’ Shoes on sale at £103.00 and bought my usual size 11 but importantly for my feet in the wider fitting. I have seen these shoes and the mid version for years but was wary as they are by repute better suited to a narrower foot. So the 2E width fitting looked like an option, particularly as my go-to review site outdoorgearlab had a great in depth and positive review of the shoe.

The X Ultra, its aggressive sole (centre) and the Trail Beast at rest in Southern France

My first impression was that the fit is snug but after an hour or so worn around the house I barely noticed this and, having now worn them almost continuously – casually and on a first seven mile outing, I am convinced these are an excellent shoe for me. Which is really good news as this model is the latest iteration of a Salomon classic, which suggests I will be able to buy these or something very like them in years to come whereas the Trail Beast isn’t currently available. I also wanted to try a shoe which, as long as the fit was good (the Ultra is snug) offered a few different features or benefits. The Ultra is a distinctly different offer to any of my previous shoes. Firstly it is lighter at 850 gm for a pair of size 11s (as compared to the Trail Beast at 1110 gm). Secondly it has deep lugs which the Trail Beast does not. This does provide great traction on loose ground or mud but in the wet on slippery rock the grip isn’t as good as a sticky Vibram sole. You do feel the bumps in the road with these and the lateral support is reasonable rather than great but the killer benefit is when you start walking down hill. These are excellent! Perhaps it is because they do narrow towards the toes (despite them being a wider fitting) or perhaps it’s the Quicklace system that equalizes when walking but the amazing comfort these offer on descents is just the best.

The ortholite insoles do a good job of securing the foot and the upper breathes well enough. The toes are as well protected as in the Trail Beast (unlike in the Terroc 330 shoe I had – now gone, which bruised both big toes so badly the nails fell off) and while I haven’t worn the Ultra in the rain and I’m sure they will be fine – but as with every other GTX lining I expect it to fail. I don’t get cold feet and have always found I walk my shoes dry. One benefit of the GTX lining I have found is the added warmth it provides in colder weather.

My first work out for the Ultra was a speedy seven mile foray in the Mendips (map below) which offered a nice variety of surfaces and inclines to give an initial idea of the shoe’s worth. The walk starts at the very Eastern end of Burrington Combe at Ellick House (Grid ref. ST49006 58014) and takes in Black Down and Beacon Batch (the highest point of the Mendip Hills), Dolebury Warren Iron Age Fort and a varied landscape in between of heathland, woodland and downland.

At then end of the walk I was pleasantly surprised. My feet felt fine. No pinching, rubbing or any other issue to note. In the Trail Beast I would have some soreness in the toes given the ground so I do think the Ultra is a really worthy replacement for my previous go-to. I do want to take these on a longer trip with a pack on to get a real sense of their worth or otherwise but so far so very very good.

‘Calern Plateau’ walk – Parc naturel régional des Préalpes d’Azur, France

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Dawn, looking West along the ridge to the wood above the village of Caussols and summit beyond

The joy of France is the incredible diversity of landscape, scale and mix of flora and fauna. Whenever I am there on family holidays I try to find the nearest walk that offers a little peace and quiet and something new.  The Calern Plateau is a Limestone plateau running E to W in the Parc naturel régional des Préalpes d’Azur, North of Grasse, twenty miles North of the Mediterranean at the very Southern limit of the Alpes Maritime, well within striking distance of Nice and Cannes.

The walk is five miles in total (but could easily be extended) a ‘there and back’ along the reasonably level crest of the plateau providing extensive views from the highpoint ‘Sommet de Calern’ 1458m (4783 ft) and the solitude of the plateau. I arrived before dawn in the car park which is surrounded by various observatory buildings. Walking Westward (map below) I realised the benefit of an early start in mid July. The air was cool which suited me perfectly. After a few minutes the tarmac service road petered out and became a rough cart track following the crest before running away from the crest round a small wood and path which leads to the hamlet of Caussols in the valley below.

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View North across the plateau to the Mercantour National Park

The plateau to the N is a sea of yellowing grass and wild lavender with the higher Alpes maritime as a backdrop and as the Sun rose the scent of lavender increased as did the the sound of a million bees and the number of butterflies – skippers, marbled Whites, Fritillaries and others. Turning off the track towards the summit the path is ill defined, winding through the Lavender, Scabious, Wild Dianthus and grasses. The views from the summit (higher than Ben Nevis) are fantastic.

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View West from the summit
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View South from the Summit

From the Summit I walked a while beyond the summit and found a spot to take in the sights and sounds. There were thousands of Swifts taking advantage of the millions of insects and the bees were in full voice. A magical place to sit and ponder a while. The going is quite easy but the ground rough in places, good walking shoes a minimum. Very hot in mid Summer, take mozi spray, the flies are an irritant by mid morning.

The next time I’m down there I will aim to stay further North in the Park or the Mercantour National Park to take full advantage of walks in this amazing landscape.

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‘Black Mountains’ walk – Herefordshire Wales Border

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The River Wye just outside Hay-on-Wye

Each year three friends and I take a few days out and find somewhere to stay from which we can take decent days out on the hills. This year we chose the ‘Black Mountains‘ area covering the border between Herefordshire, England and Powys, Wales, with Hay-on-Wye as our base (the most delightful town full of amazing book shops, great pubs, the River Wye, a castle and lovely people). We wanted a lengthy hike in a dramatic landscape so chose a 14 mile hike along the high ridges East and west of the Olchon Valley as our preferred route (map below). The drive to the start point from Hay-on-Wye was tortuous. We chose to park a car at each end of our route which involved an hour of navigating twisting minor roads to park one then get to our start point in the car park under the ‘Cat’s Back’ and the ‘Black Hill’. We started at twelve noon, later than we would have liked given it was early November but decided that the route would take about five or six hours dependent on stops so we would only have an hour or so in the pitch black. With a couple of head torches between us it would be fine, the route simple.

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The view South East from the top of the ‘Cat’s Back’. The ridge to the right forms the second part of the walk.

The climb up the Cat’s Back is a tough start but a brilliant way to get up high really quickly and appreciate the vast landscape, rising about 800 ft. The path flattens and gently climbs up to Hay Bluff at 2200 ft. We lingered to draw breath and take in the spectacular views for a while from Black Hill. We hadn’t enough time time to take in Hay Bluff and the ridge to the North but as it adds only twenty minutes or so to the whole I have included it as part of the walk and added some pics from Hay Bluff (which we walked to from Gospel Pass on another day). Having reached the head of the valley, we turned SE onto the 11 mile ridge route which picks up the ‘Offa’s Dyke Path’ over ‘Black Mountain’, the highest point of the route at about 2300 ft. Even in bright November sun the chill was noticeable after a while on the high exposed ridge. Gloves and extra layers went on as the sun began to sink to our right. We thought we could make out the Brecon Beacons in the gaps between the ridges. The path is excellent, one foot in Wales, the other in England. This is an upland bog and a great deal has been done to provide a firm, dry path across the boggier bits. Large slabs have been laid between stretches of scalping pathway. It makes the walk really enjoyable and rapid, not having to tackle interminable bog. It is also a classic route so the impact of heavy footfall is restricted to the defined pathway, rather than the creating side paths eroding the peaty soil.

A few of hours later, as we reached Hatterrall Hill, we were in near darkness and the torches went on. The lights of AvonMouth and Cardiff shone in the distance as we covered the last few miles to the tracks and small roads that led to Stanton where we had parked. We were lucky enough to come across a van delivering to Lower Pentwyn and in return for closing a gate the driver kindly allowed us to pile in the back and took us back to our car near the bridge North of Stanton.

An incredible walk with some of the best far-reaching views I have seen. I would love to repeat this in May or June with a longer warmer day to take the time so soak up the experience. Probably from Gospel Pass – getting to the start by cab – 20 mins from Hay, then staying overnight near Pandy or getting a cab from the pub there back to Hay.

I wore waterproof trail shoes, my friends boots. Trail shoes will do if it’s dryish. The temperature really dropped as it got darker, I’m glad we had layers.

 

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‘Lord Hereford’s Knob’ or ‘Twmpa’ to the South West from Hay Bluff ridge

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View to the North from Hay Bluff ridge

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View to the North from Hay Bluff over Hay-on-Wye

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Looking South East about a mile South of the ‘Black Mountain’ at 703m the highest point of the route

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The Bristol Channel in the distance to the South, Table Mountain (I think – it sort of makes sense) to the right

 

Olchon Valley

‘Grand Luberon’ walk – Vaucluse, France

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The path from Mourre Nègre stretching invitingly to the East 

The Luberon Massif is an undulating ridge in the Vaucluse Dept of France that stretches for about thirty miles East to West, the Petit Luberon to the West and the Grand Luberon to the East, the two divided by a narrow canyon, the ‘Combe de Lourmarin‘. The highest point of the Luberon is the Mourre Nègre, height 1125 m (3690 ft). And this was my goal.

I started my 5 mile walk from the car park just to the South of the village of ‘Auribeau‘ and took the direct approach, straight up. I think this is one of the steepest paths I have ever walked (map below). It climbs more than 1,700 feet in about 1.5 miles as the crow flies. It was a real scramble. Subsequently I have found a great blog which describes the walk I would have liked to do and hope to in the future. I recommend it. It being August, I started at dawn in order to get the benefit of a cool morning while making my way up which was just as well. The path seemed more like a steep river bed than path proper but I have found this in France, some paths being almost impossible without scrambling to the point that I have had to turn back. But I laboured on until I disturbed a family of wild boar snuffling among the small oaks. I had no Idea what to do so I froze and waited until they moved off. Delightful to see but very large.

Having made it nearly to the ridge top I crossed an unmade access road into a fabulous, seemingly never ending alpine meadow interspersed with pine trees and fragrant flowers that stretched for miles into the morning sun to the East, the softer ground churned by the wild boar, the cool breeze providing relief after the hot path up. More Julie Andrews than Johnny Hallyday. The mountain is dominated by a massive radio tower but otherwise it is just a visual joy. The views are some of the best. The ridge is narrow so the country just opens up beneath your feet. And the clarity was amazing. I could make out Mont Ventoux to the North, about 25 miles away.

It was a special place to spend an hour or so soaking up the increasingly warmer sunshine. The ridge path disappeared to the undulating East and I so wanted to walk it all the way but could only walk a mile or so before having to turn back to take the longer track to Auribeau then back to do family holiday stuff. The long access road back down is easy if long. I just couldn’t face the descent on the same path I had taken up the mountain. My knees just aren’t that tough.

A fabulous walk but I wish I had researched the better approach. Take lots of water and poles, it’s a beast in the Summer. I wore decent trail shoes which were ideal for the terrain.

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The view to the North from the Ridge – the white summit of Mont Ventoux about 30 miles distant

 

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The ‘path’

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The delightfully slow access road back to Auribeau which wends it way past the castle (on the left)

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That’s 4.9 km ‘up’

 

Why walk?

The Great Ridge, Peak District National Park
The Great Ridge, Peak District. ©Chris Hepburn. Getty Images

I rediscovered the sheer enjoyment, the benefits (and some of the pain) of walking in valleys, vales, on hills and moors quite late in life. A youthful interest in the countryside and ‘hiking’ as it was then known, morphed into thirty busy years at a desk ensuring I was truly unfit. It hadn’t occurred to me to change my approach to health and fitness as I felt OK. But Ill health creeps up. Laziness, no interest in active sports, bad habits and poor posture allied to miserably large intake food and drink and quite suddenly you realise you are really not in very good condition at all and that a few things don’t work as well as they once did.

I was working on a design project for a client, EULAR (The European League Against Rheumatism) and looking for images for use online that would inspire those living with the disease to try something new for the health and social benefits while instilling confidence in their abilities. I was acutely aware of what this meant as I have a history of problems with a few disks in my spine and over the decades have spent weeks at a time lying flat on max pain relief while pain and spasms subside from my abraded sciatic nerve. It was my back surgeon who explained that confidence is key to full recovery. Being aware of my back ‘failure’ I had convinced myself that I needed to be careful, which really meant taking it quite easy. And working hard at a desk felt like a good place to be, as did the the chair in the bar of my local.

It was at my desk that I came across a brilliant image of an older woman climbing a made path up a hill in the UK. But I didn’t know where it had been taken. It was the age of the walker that struck me. Twenty years older than me and getting into the heart of the great outdoors rather than sitting by a car with a small picnic table and thermos, looking at the view (The image was of the Great Ridge in the Peak District).

And that was it. I wanted to get walking with a pack again. It suited my interests and my physique, I’m no runner. It also suited family life. I could find somewhere interesting to walk pretty much wherever I was and it was something I could do early in the day, not impinging on the mechanics of family life too greatly at home or on holiday.  It might also get us into the country as a family.

It took ages to feel appreciably fitter. My first four mile jaunt left me gasping for breath on a bench after one mile. As did the second and so on… A year later and I didn’t have to stop. I chose a fixed route on our local heath in order to get the miles in. I pushed the pace from day one and I now do the four mile circuit in just over an hour with 400 ft of ascent. Not earth shattering but I get out of breath, so perfect for me. And it worked in making me feel better about just getting out there, feeling better and not feeling self conscious. My confidence in my bodily health and what I can achieve has grown remarkably.  I know my limits but more importantly I have broadened and improved my capabilities. Put together with the remarkable kit and clothing available today and my hunger for new and bigger challenges grows. Walking/backpacking has changed my life and made me aware of just how many accessible, diverse and extraordinary the landscapes there are in the UK.

So thank you EULAR and the pensioner on a hill for helping me to find the inspiration to just get walking.

 

 

‘Brecon Beacons’ walk – South Wales

DSC_0630Probably the classic ridge walk in the Southern part of the UK, the Brecon Beacons Horseshoe walk starts with a gradual climb, a couple of tough pulls (made truly worth it for the amazing views if you are lucky with the weather) and a fabulous return to the start point but with a pretty precipitous scramble from the ridge edge to the valley floor. The start and end point for the the 9.5 mile circuit is Pont Cwmfedwen car park (map below). A short hike up a minor road and take the path to the right that rose slowly and steadily to the N on the Western flank of Fan y Big. (There are options on where to start and finish. Choose the one that suits). Three miles from the start having ascended 1500 ft to the scarp edge of the horseshoe, the views to the North open up rewarding your efforts. Turning to the W and scaling Cribyn the views get better. Which is just as well, as the steep descent, then the clamber up Pen y Fan is hard work. We had been incredibly fortunate with the weather during our walk given it was October. At the top of Pen y Fan we relaxed and enjoyed brilliant blue sky and crystal clear views to the N and S back down the valley with barely a murmur of wind, just a light, cooling breeze. From Pen y Fan it’s a pleasant 5 mile descent generally to the S past Corn Du along the edge of the valley with a precarious scramble back into the valley in order to cross the small dam of the lower part of the Neuadd Reservoir system, then rejoining our original path back to our start point. The alternative route having clambered back to the valley would have been to stay on the Western side of the valley and small river and take the path through the pine woods back to the minor road a few hundred feet from the car park. Next time perhaps. It’s a great day walk and if the weather is with you, stunningly beautiful. We were very lucky. Suggest strong trail shoes as a minimum for the walk. Wind shirt, gloves and hat vital, wet weather gear a wise back-up.

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View to the North West of Pen y Fan 

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…and to the South 

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The view West back to the steep valley edge from the lower pond of the Dam system

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