The public loo block is an open invitation. Dominated by the looming grandeur of the Claerwen dam, which is neighboured by a traditional hill farm it is accompanied by a car park, which services many folks besides walkers as we find out later. Here beside this magnificent industrial monolith we decide to ‘dive in’ to find a toilet warm, dry and sweat smelling, which essentially means rest before the big boggy push the following day. We can tell you things panned out just right and there was more to come.
Within the space of half an hour we’ve got the measure of the place and so do a group of extreme scramblers who appear out of the wilderness making a river crossing with their engine whirring, wheel spinning machines. They’re from Ipswich a good bunch of lads, six or seven of them, fired up and covered in mud from a day’s scrambling in the Cambrians. The juxtaposition between idyllic landscape, tranquillity and this craziness is stark but in truth it’s just good innocent fun a thought an elderly chap shared as he came to investigate from the warmth and comfort of his camper parked conveniently across the way. His name was Meirion a 76-year-old Welsh man from Swansea who, as we discovered, was grieving the loss of his wife of 53 years Kathleen. Indeed; they both used to visit this valley together and it's here he felt close to her on this particular weekend.
River Irfon - Wye Tributary
28 miles total 01 - 05th Oct 2016
Source Grid Ref: SO 838 - 610 Bryn Garw (558 Meters).
4 interactive map click right. 4 OS Exploer 200 Click
Originally composed by Paul Jickells - Finished by Mark
It starts like any other bus ride out of Hereford, stood waiting with common folk in the county depot for the 9.10 bus from Hereford to Kington arriving in the blink of an eye at 9.45 to be followed almost immediately by the Llandrindod Wells bus pulling in at 10.30. A point to note about Llandod: the back of beyond it might be but this doesn’t detract from its wonderful buildings, which line the streets that in themselves speak of old Victorian spa towns and the grand age that once was. Indeed, the architecture indicates how important this Mid Wales town in another age was but alas a brief stop and glimpse into the past and our next point of departure is Ellan Village in the Ellan Valley near to the dams, which supply Birmingham with water. Fortunately, as the bus connections weren’t in our favour we had to hire a taxi that cost us £20 taking us far beyond the last bus stop at Llanwrthwl, which saved us half a day’s walk. Wayne was our driver who had moved to the area 8 years ago from Bristol and he’s been driving taxis around these parts since but even so, he had never gone down the road we had lead him down in order to get to Ellan Village. We took him the back way through some pretty awesome landscape, which was a new experience for him thus improving his local knowledge something he relished with enthusiasm as did we.
We were dropped off a hundred yards or so from the village on a patch of soggy grass covered in sheep droppings a sign this was Mid Wales. The air was chilled and the atmosphere damp and mystical a perfect start to the River Irfon trip. The first way marker so to speak was Ellan Village adjacent to the River Ellan that flows down from the high tops of Geifas and Ochr Lwyd at 572 and 544 meters respectively. It was full of babbling sonic life letting us know that we for sure in the Cambrians observing with wonderment, as we listened, the rocky clad hillsides that defined the narrow corridor leading into the mountain range. As on cue rain soon comes and shelter is sought in the centre of the village under a well-built stone come seating area with a gabled roof, a space we employed as an outdoor bate room before embarking on the journey proper. It’s a lazy start but hey it’s such a laid-back environment you can’t help but chill out to the ambiance. Indeed, the people in the area go about their business in much the same fashion as there’s not much call for rushing about round here it appears although things are illusory. Heading in the direction of the wild mountains each step is a journey towards a closer union with the heart and nature. With this infusion of life around us we can’t help but register the feeling with a local woman unloading equipment off the back of her truck who sighted that her husband works for the Ellan Valley Nature Trust. With our respects exchanged we crossed over the river via an old baily like bridge where we checked out the visitor centre further on up the valley situated to the foreground of one of the dams. Here we couldn’t help but notice we were in the Lakes of Wales that supplies water to Birmingham and the West Midlands. The needs of a population noted we go see what the vibe is.
The visitor centre is fairly busy with people from far and wide including eager crews from Birmingham. After all it is a tourist attraction centred on the 100-year-old dams and the epic Ellan Valley but were not here to buy souvenirs. Instead, were here to learn about the dams and area whilst locating the River Irfon source and our first camp situated deeper into the mountain range. Of course, people are naturally curious and can see we’re geared up for some walking and we love to share the adventure, which anyone can live if they have a mind to. So, after a short confab with staff and perusal around the centre we ensure our gaiters are ready, that waterproofs are adorned and with rucksacks hauled onto our shoulders were ready, weather show or not.
Scaling the side of the first dam at the base of Craig Y Foel we follow a steep track that brings us up level with a small car park and oval viewing area on top, which looks out across the Caban Coch reservoir towards the mountains beyond. Of course, stepping onto that viewing platform was as if a portal had opened up marking the point where all trivialities of the world were left behind cleansing, as it appeared to do so, all impurities thus imbuing us with lighter more stable energy.
This is the life! It’s Shangri-La and it’s the first real opportunity Paul’s had to use his new Bushnal H20 pocket sized binoculars bought for such an engagement in time. They’re quite good and on challenging routes you can spot tracks far ahead but they’re also great for watching wildlife and of course appreciating landscapes such as the one being observed here in the Cambrians. From this point on we had a 9 kilometre walk to our first camp site which saw us cross the bridge at Garreg ddu whilst skirting the Westerly fringe of Caban Coch. As we meandered on we enjoyed the subtle views through the reservoir trees and the various gradients in light as the on off stormy afternoon rolled leisurely by. As you can gather, and being a well-known destination in Wales, we are not the only folk here and so at various junctures throughout the approach we encounter numerous groups of one sort or another, which constituted some families, people-seeking solace with friends, some alone and yet more scrambling across the landscape on two wheels. It’s thanks to the Victorians and their engineering that this wild and rugged landscape has opened up to such a varied array of people. However, beyond that of the impressive dams, visitor centre, curious follies, atmospheric chapel where we take five whilst signing the book and so on we are about to go further and explore what is said to be one of the last remaining wildernesses in the UK, which is the awe-inspiring plateaus of the Cambrian Mountains where the source of the Irfom lay.
Were seriously up for it and despite deluges of rain the mood is never dampened within or between us and there remains a positive outlook. So, we keep filming, chatting, photographing and documenting the landscape as it unfolds. Our kit holds up and as for Paul it’s a bit of an experiment regarding weather protection as he is employing the new Snug Pack poncho, which does a great job at keeping him dry whilst Mark has his new Berghaus Ruction jacket which, at 20,000 Hydrostatic Head, does just the same. Of course, if you can remain dry in such terrain it does make being out in it much more fun.
Reflecting back for a moment we’re struck by how pleasant it was sat at the chapel above the bridge overlooking Garegg ddu, which offered tantalizing insights at what else the Cambrians offered the explorer. The chapel was relocated from lower down the valley to a point further into the dam network, when the dams were being built. Of course, the men who built the dams must have been a hardy bunch of guys. indeed, as a mark of respect Paul noticed a carved dedication to them inside the chapel.
There’s water cascading and trickling down from the mountains everywhere as you might expect being one of the largest watersheds in Great Britain. Besides the streams and rivulets waterfalls are common place also sighted as they are in the distance as we walk. Indeed, the environment bursts with energy, which is like a live wire with a direct line feeding your core. Naturally water is what we’re made up of and like sunlight it’s needed although the latter appears in short supply right now because H20 is dominating the skies. In a couple of hours though with the camp zone in sight it subsides and what with the weather haven been more than inclement we do think to ourselves, where is there a dry spot to be had? Due to the fact, we would like to keep our kit dry on the first night it’s dealt with easily via a remote toilet block at the foot of the Claerwen Reservoir the last in the chain. As in any survival situation you scavenge and forage and if an alternative to a soaking wet tent presents itself we’ll gladly accept it with no hesitation.
After everything had died down and with the bikers now gone we continued to chat amiably with Meirion over tea. Later he drove us up to the top of the dam where he was to spend the night. With just a little of the day left we walked across the dam admiring the now iridescent evening light, which cast an evocative blue hue across the expanse of water. As we reached the other side where another viewing platform facing east greeted us we stood in awe of the sweeping vista down the valley towards Elan, which induced a satisfaction we’d come to know on nearly all our Wye adventures.
A short while later after indulging in the magnificent views it got dark, which signalled our retreat down the hillside to the toilet block for a comfortable night’s bivvy as though in a bothy. In the morning, we awoke to brilliant sunshine and timeless droplets of moisture, which hung softly forming clouds of fog. It was something of a healing experience that our soul simply agreed to with pure delight. What an amazing sight!
Come morning, and having packed our gear up, we followed up on Meirion’s invitation of more tea before our hike into the mountains. Leaning our rucksacks against the wheel hub of his camper we knocked on his door entering fresh and alive from the epic scene outside, which was matched upon entry by a table laid out with two mugs of tea on it, egg, beans, brown source, bread and butter all served up lovingly for own consumption. Wow, what a surprise and encounter we were having with this wonderful old boy who we later considered a friend or Kindred spirit as we chatted about the diverse conversation that ensued early morning in a lone camper van in the middle of the Cambrian Mountains.
To us the Cambrian Mountains are a Mawnog meaning ‘’place of peat’’ in Welsh. Indeed, they are as impressive perhaps as any immense forest because when you look at it peat is essentially broken-down moss matter and on the very tops there are walls and seems of this stuff metres deep, built up over thousands of years. They are important places to us peat bogs because they store incredible amounts of carbon or C02 that would otherwise be in the atmosphere. Of course, when we are immersed in such ecosystems we appreciate these seemingly innocuous formations as they sit here out the way of everyday consciousness. It’s so easy to overlook them but as mentioned they harness most of the world’s carbon and that works just like a forest does. Mawnogs then are truly awesome places and it’s where the source of the River Irfon can be found high up and out of the way in this incredible vast and spacious landscape.
We’re heading for a kind of saddle between Bryn Garw and Drum Dagwylltion (558 Meters) where the Irfon emerges. Before we get there, we traverse the Afon Arban Valley with its steep sided escarpments either side and somewhat cavernous open space looking forward. On this occasion the horizon up yonder had a solitary cloud suspended above it creating a presence that seemed to speak of a special time ahead. This was echoed in a meeting with a chap called Dave during a break to take in our surroundings who was equally as solitary up there amid this distant tributary of the Wye. We spoke happily about remoteness, instilling in all comradery enough to continue on our way, each with a warm glow inside.
Crossing the Aban carefully due to substrate that felt like grease we made our way up higher through elephant grass as high as our chests. We were now half way up Nant Yr Lau another distant tributary of the Wye that is made so only when it finally filters through the Elan Dam system to emerge in the River Elan at the human’s behest. This is of course assuming its waters made it there before being piped to Birmingham elsewhere.
We’re loving this slow going for the stone balance Paul embarks upon beside Nant Yr Lau and the mosses underfoot also provide stony yet spongy points of interest as we ascend further. With spirits invigorated by Red Kite in addition and vistas that begin to reveal the so called ‘Desert of Wales’ we call out to one another intermittently with a comment denoting our pleasure. I’d say “Hey Paul how you getting on?” He’d reply back by saying, “Alright, I’m just resonating with the beauty of it all.”
Part of that beauty was the effort required as we heaved our way for the most part through the moss and moor grass. During the course of the day the sound of our boots and bodies making contact with it all appeared like a perpetual symphony as we exited the Nant Yr Lau reaching the crest to Bryn Garw as we did so. Surrounding us was a big field of peat, which we admired as it must have been at-least a 1,200-year-old layer it being 1.2 meters thick by our estimation. We both held the peat in hand sensing and smelling the eons of time before us.
A short while later we crested the mountain proper to be greeted by the anticipated plantation, which resembled a scene from Passchendaele. I turned to Paul and said, “I think this might be the source of the Irfon Paul. Well, perhaps over there to the left a couple of hundred meters or so.” He responded by saying, “I think you might be right. It’s a little hard to tell though what with the change in landscape.” Moving on I noticed the fence line, which was marked on the map. With a little excitement and knowing our exact position I called out to Paul once more saying, “This way Paul down the side of this fence line.” With Paul now by my side checking out the map for himself we agreed that the streamlet now revealing itself alongside the fence was indeed the embryonic Irfon. We had found it the source of what is said to be one of the River Wye’s most beautiful and scenic rivers.
To us it wasn’t so scenic at present what with a plantation decimated by logging as muted before. The only scenic aspect was the miles and miles of bog and moor grass that undulated towards Pumlumon the source of the Wye and Snowdonia beyond. Looking down at the bog we were immersed in the small rivulet it fed trickled with a perennial vigour due to the wet bulbous mass of mountain that could be seen looming large. The mosses beneath the surface of the water glowed amid an archipelago made up of sodden tufts and mounds of grass. It was magical!
With this, and although not religious, Paul turned to me and said, “Ok let’s say a prayer for Scott.” I glanced over saying, “Yeah you’re right. We did say we’d do that for him at source.” Scott was an old friend from Hereford who had struggled with Heroin addiction for many years. Before we came up to the Cambrians he asked us to prey for him, which we said we’d do. So here we were at the source of the irfon offering a few words for a friend in the hope he’d find a way. After sharing our heartfelt thoughts amid this special wild place, we continued on picking our way through deep elephant grass and a psychedelic wood with a brew stop, which was to take a whole day before reaching our second camp at Charlies somewhat medieval farm in the heart of the stupendous Abergwesyn Valley.
Reflecting back to Mirrion, the Aban and Nant Yr Lau Valleys, the mosses and vistas it was a fabulous start to a hike that was to take a further 3 days as we passed by the Wolfs Leap, gnarly high mountain Oaks, the Irfon Forest, Llanwrtyd Wells, stayed with Berni and John, evaded frisky cattle, walked with purpose and rhythm, admired the milky way at camp 4 amid the lushest carpet of grass that any wild camper would gladly gravitate towards and on through to Builth Wells where we were to greet the Wye as the irfon gently amalgamated with it.