Thursday, 16 August 2012

Welsh Marches Backpacking – Offa, Hergest, Colva and Radnor Forest

Dawn on Llanfihangel Hill not getting shot at today

This was a walk designed principally by Dawn which started out as one of several solutions to the problem of bagging three Hewitts in Radnor, plus a couple of others in South Wales and one near Devil’s Bridge. In the end, just the Radnorshire ones were ticked, but the interchanges of emails developed a longer route from Knighton to Dolau over several days, dangerously reccied by Dawn a few weeks ago, during which she was shot at (On the same day as James in and was called upon to herd cattle and visit pubs and other risky stuff.

hawthorn hill camp

So, last Saturday afternoon, we got off the train in Knighton and plunged off in sweaty weather Southwards along Offa’s Dyke for several hills till we found an interesting and discreet camping spot inside an isolated pickernick place on the summit of Hawthorn Hill hill amidst cows and sheep. Here, the grass was deep and the contours were enough to hide our presence in case anybody was interested. Water was got from a cattle trough, which sounds worse than it actually was. The night was windy but quiet with only the distant sounds of wandering ATVs and the odd fox.

misty on offa's dyke

Sunday morning was driech, though. It was rainy and misty and warm and we progressed Southwards, briskly, following Offa’s Dyke which is remarkably well preserved in places. Ultimately we got to Kington where lunch was had in the Swan Inn till it was time to plod on.

hergest ridge summit

We plodded on up Hergest Ridge – a Marilyn and, it would seem, popular resort for Kington’s population and their dogs and bicycles and possessing a strange group of Monkey Puzzle trees near the summit – a feature which makes the hill identifiable from wide areas of countryside all around. Its not a dramatic hill, though, but is grassy and friendly in the nicest English kind of way even though some of the hill is in Wales. Hergest Ridge has lots of piles of stones, which seem to be clearance cairns including one at the summit.

view north from colva

We turned off Offa for facing fate fearfully on Llanfihangel Hill (ok, that’s enough of that…) – which henceforth shall be known by it’s easier English name of Colva. It was here on Colva that James heard gunshots and was confronted by an angry gamekeeper. It was here on Colva that Dawn heard the whistle of passing shotgun pellets fired from nearby. It was here on Colva that me and Dawn spotted what appeared to be a caravan parked on the track above us. It turned out to be a white tank of water on the back of a trailer, but a little higher up the track was a veteran landrover containing a couple of keepery-types and their dogs. They ignored us. We continued to the trig.

There were gas guns going off and what appeared to be an inflatable scarecrow, all of which seems to be a reasonable and humane way of keeping the corvids off your grouse chicks so that they can be shot. So, we had keepers, guarding the place before the glorious 13th, we had scarecrows, gas guns, grouse butts, access roads, managed heather; in fact, all the accoutrements of a fully functional grouse moor – but, apparently, without any grouse. We saw none, and we heard none.  I blame the walkers.

second camp

We camped by a small beck a mile or so North, well off the “grouse” (arf) moor and, after a twenty mile walk with nearly 4000 feet of up, we had a quiet night.

The next day was to be much easier, so we didn’t have to set off too early. Our job for the day was to get ourselves to New Radnor, have a cup of tea and snaffle some water  before getting a foothold on the Radnorshire forest group of hills. (there’s very little water available for backpacking hereabouts, obviously due to the geology of the place. Becks are marked but prove to be dry. Huge valleys hold pathetic trickles. Its not lack of rain – there’s plenty of rain – its just disappearing into the landscape somehow.

sheep gathering

So we set off in high hopes for an easy day, encountering a shepherd and his dogs and 1500 sheep on the way. It seems the next stop for the lambs would be in curries and Sunday joints. Moving them all in the right direction was an impressive skill.

camp three from whimble

We called at a tea room for toast and tea and cakes and stuff and filled up our water bags from a tap, and, seeing as the pub in New Radnor was just opening, we allowed ourselves a short period of celebration as the rain started. A painful and long uphill struggle through steaming wet jungle followed and at first, campsites were difficult to find. In the end, we blocked a bridleway with our tents and, as the weather cleared, I went off to bag Whimble, a 599metre, very steep , grassy lump with a cracking view, whilst Dawn snoozed the afternoon away.

dab on eleven

We saw nobody. Nobody wanted to use the bridleway. It was an atmospheric spot, on the edge of a steep-sided valley, with the hillfog hiding the tops and the wind wuthering through the wires and another fox yelping and crying somewhere. I turned the DAB radio up to eleven!

Dawn on bache hill

Yet another day dawned – quite a nice day today – and we waltzed off to bag Bache Hill, which went easily, Black Mixen, quite easy, and Great Rhos – nice , if a bit North Pennine (boggy) and down to a pleasant camping spot on a little bilberry ridge overlooking some Howgill-type countryside. Water was got from a tiny stream deep down in the valley below, followed by a heaving, cursing climb back up through the sweaty bracken.


radnor forest

last camp

But we had the tent up by two o’clock, so a lazy afternoon of sunbathing was followed by a snoozy, balmy evening which was rudely and suddenly interrupted by a blustering gale straight into the tent door. I zipped up the akto which was soon dancing around in the gale, a gale which lasted all night and which resulted in yet more bits of the akto falling off (small poles in the box sections). I need a new tent. The DAB on radio 4 predicted heavy rain and gales , so by 6:00 am the next morning, I was stuffing porridge into myself and planning an escape.

...and rest...

So, we arrived at Dolau station with about three hours to spare before the train. Dolau station is unmanned and is, basically, a garden with a railway going through it. Local volunteers do all the work and it’s quite beautiful. A couple of locals were strimming and cutting and wheeling wheelbarrows about as we waited in the garden shed  passenger lounge for the train to Shrewsbury as the weather went briefly forwards to a wet and windy autumn.

And that was it. We’d done 72 kilometres and bagged several tops, including the all-important three Hewitts. (Only eighteen left to do) Dawn had, of course, done a stout work on the reccy and knew where the water was and the fact that the tea room had a tap and had even despatched staff members from the Powys access team to brave the dangers of Colva AND had provided supplies of orange chocolate drops…..



Dawn said...

A cracking trip Mike,very enjoyable.

John J said...

That's an interesting and not very often explored area. Don't tell anybody else about it or they'll all want to visit.
Glad to see that Dawn's been keeping an eye on you.

Iain said...

'Tis a lovely, thankfully unknown, area. We lived for many years on the Hereford/Welsh borders, just below old Lord Hereford's Knob! A delightful position in which to be!

Jules said...

Weird! I was looking at routes through that exact same part of the world only yesterday. Coincidence, or something more spooky? You decide ......

It does look fab, and gives some credence to my plan for a 3-4 day linear route between Llandrindod and Knighton (or something like that) accessed via Heart of Wales railway using the same base every night.

Mike Knipe said...

Dawn - Thats what I think!
JJ - Radnor seems to be getting a bit of attention recently, specially in blogland. It's probably just a phase!
Iain - We know a song about Lord Hereford's Knob. Its a very green and beautiful area, though...
Jules - Seems like a plan- not many trains per day on the train line , though (?three each way per day...)

Jules said...

Yes, trains do seem to be a bit thin on the ground - 2-4 per day each way, from what I can gather - so organisation on a military level will be needed, especially with timings (which might b****r things up a bit!).

But I reckoned there could be either about a 5 hour or 8 hour window most days - which might be OK. Further planning is required, though!

AlanR said...

Great trip Mike and Dawn. Good to see that you are back to doing the mileage and up’s again Dawn.