Irfon Diary

Cambrian Mountains

Upper Wye Tributary

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.

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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.

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