River Elan - to Wye Confluence
23 miles total Fri 28th Sep - 1st Oct
After a taxi ride from Rhayader to the campsite I was immersed in the Cambrian Mountains once more. The last time I was here was back in October 2016 from the 1st to the 5th of October with my late twin brother Paul. We were here to hike the River Irfon from source, which begins 15 KM South from my current position in the Ystwyth Valley on top of Bryn Garw at a height of 558 meters. It’s a fantastic memory I have, which I’m feeling clearly on account of my return.
This time I’m here to hike the River Elan. I’m excited to be back, because not only do I love the Cambrian Mountains, I resonate with the place my brother admired to. I therefore have an appreciation of the mountains that’s personal, which leads me to think there should be a host of good feelings on this the Wild Elan Way.
I set up camp quickly and head off down the quiet remote road with my camera to explore and locate my entry point onto the mountain opposite the Ystwyth River, which runs beside my tent. Flanked by mountains on either side of me the valley it flows through is impressive lending the river a genuine air of rugged beauty as a mountain stream, which is greeted later by the Coastal town Aberystwyth some 22 miles West.
Having done my recce and chatted kindly to the farming family that plays host to campers in this awe-inspiring Cambrian valley below the source of the Elan I get my head down for an early start in the morning. It’s fresh and feels as restful as it has done on previous occasions.
With a warm breakfast made up of Porridge, Goji Berries and Chai Seeds I find myself heading off up the mountain happy to be moving steadily in tune with the steep slopes. The views are epic as is the local geology, which throws up a huge surprise in the form of a giant piece of Quartz. I’ve never seen one this big or one in what seems to be so photographically situated. I admire it and with a snap take a photo of the deep valley and mountains stretching out before me scarred by torrents of water.
On top I’m greeted, not by lots of rock, but by the customary elephant grass that festoons these bulbous peaks and plateaus. It’s wet with large pools of boggy areas, which I navigate carefully so as not to go down an unsuspecting hole that could so easily twist my ankle giving rise to a yelp that nobody would hear but the frogs. The last thing I want is to crawl off the mountain before I’ve even got started. There’s lots to enjoy even the maze-like hiking that eventually leads me to the Elan source, which melds into a sea of grass in this the Welsh desert.
Suddenly, and out of nowhere, I come across a deep grassy cleft below me with water running handsomely East. It’s the Elan that’s announced itself as if expectant of my arrival. It feels like a friend that invoked from within me the words, ‘hello River Elan.’ Paul is with me to and so, with great affection in my heart, all three of us come together remotely pondering the beauty and tragedy of life in one. Kneeling now I stare at the Elan flowing perpetually with a dancing mountain sound not heard by many in this far-flung part of the Ochr Lwyd and the Banc Yr Wyn. Like a river my twin brother Paul flows through every part of me reminding me that connection to him is in the life that streams forth in my midst. I’m both happy and sad that I can still have this dialogue with him the conversation of which propels me forward to the unknown before me.
My adventure takes me to a moment golden in its quietness then back down to the river below for I have just climbed Ochr Lwyd one of the highest points in the Wye catchment. The spacious view it afforded me of the Elans course East was enough to induce a soaring vibration within, which sparked off simultaneously the idea of limitless potential. Motivated I found myself intermittently in dialogue with the river and my family as I negotiated, in addition, the bog filled plateau without any complaints. It was simply the best place to address the issues away from the four walls that often feel oppressive.
Later overlooking the valley where the mountain road winds its way almost imperceptibly to the Elan Valley further South West I sit, have something to eat and then rise with an exciting thought. I’ll create a simple stone balance! With a mission afoot, I’m off to find the right stones that will fit my vision of a prayer and photo. Stones found I straddle the young river and place them carefully atop a boulder marooned by water all around it. I’m not a magician of a stone balancing being but I’m happy with the simple effect created. Being a fan of land art and stone balancing Paul would not have wanted me to walk away without creating one. I stand back and admire the idea expressed knowing it to be a beautiful one that affirms the glow of life as it courses through me via the Elan and the mountains I’m fully immersed in.
Before reaching the end of the Elan source walk I bath waste deep in the utterly frigid waters of the Elan. The water was clear, clean and refreshing in the still pool a bit different from the hole my right leg would fall afterwards as I approached the road after 7KM of wonderful hard hiking. All that way and not one incident! Sods law I think as I smell the putrid organic matter coating my boot like an oily seem destined to stick around for a while.
As I dry my foot and boot on the verge of the road two sheep approach like bandits out of the Good, Bad and the Ugly. As they come to a halt nearby from out in the distance I assure them I am a friend and not a foe. With that they exchange views with a covert touch between them then pass by in single file without a shot fired. Had it not been for the odd car and roaring bike here to enjoy wild Wales it could have easily been the perfect spaghetti Western scene what with the vast grass desert extending out to their rear. It was a funny moment punctuated by a glance as to how my boots were doing in the now warm Saturday afternoon sun.
Walking towards the Craig Goch reservoir with the awesome savannah like Upper Elan behind me I get engrossed in the Afon Gwngu Valley to the West imagining a hike up it as I do. There are no marked out trails up there, which means only one thing and that is total bliss if there were no prevailing storms. Even then you could find a solitude worth revelling in.
With dreams of wild natural wonders swimming around in my head it’s not long before I see a guy wading in the river down below. He’s a dot at present before I make moves to go and see what he’s doing. It turns out he’s fishing for trout and his name is Mr Morgan a local from Llandegley near to the source of the River Edw in the Radnor Forest,
which Paul and myself hiked in early 2016. A friendly fellow we chat about the river and fish as he allows me to film without a hint of self-awareness. Satisfied with our encounter we say goodbye knowing we both love it out here for much the same reason that being all competition drains away when you only have yourself and the mountains to commune with.
As I near the Lluest Cwmbach Bothy on the left bank of the majestic Craig Goch reservoir I am halted by yet another local whistling to his sheep spread out over the surrounding slopes. A farmer born to the farm I had previously passed by he tells me that the Bothy was last occupied in 1953. He was keen to impart local knowledge, which I whole heartedly appreciated as it brought me closer still to the Elan and mountains. I’m not here just for a frolic and some photos for I get a thrill out of knowing the routes of a place as evidenced in my walk from the Elan source. It’s through these connections that I get a deeper sense of where I am and in fostering these connections my sense of place becomes ever more profound as I try and find where in the world I am without my twin. I know when I meet these people and discover the route of a river that it’s with the land and these kinds of people I am happiest. As the Bothy came closer Paul concurred with me in my mind.
There it stood on the slopes of the reservoir like some chimneyed cottage plucked out of Birmingham, which this very reservoir feeds. Unlike Birmingham that great Midlands metropolis some 120KM - 70 miles East this cottage was bathed in a sea of green that rose up above it. Unperturbed I could see sat in the late afternoon sun two people relaxed in front of the grandest of visual displays constituting miles of Cambrian wilderness. Although I was an addition to the blissful scene they turned out to be extremely friendly as Jessica, her partner Richard and I began to acquaint ourselves in true Bothy tradition.
Very soon we would be joined, not by other solo hikers out of the wilderness, but a group of guys from none other than the Bothy Association who were laden with gear and beer as they had a general meeting at the Bothy the following morning. The timing to meet up with Bothy goers and the guys who maintain these remote places for our use couldn’t have been better.
Connections were good but I had come for deep rest and not a party so I retreated later to my tent, which I had pitched up in front of and just below the Bothy for what I’d hoped would be the best view in the morning.
After a good night’s rainy rest, we were in for a beautiful damp and cool start, which felt like ideal conditions as echoed by some mountain bikers later on at the Southern end of Craig Goch. From Shrewsbury we stopped to talk for a while discussing, as we did so, location and the ideal weather. Saying farewell, I crossed the reservoir bridge taking the opportunity to sit on a protruding rock high above the road, which overlooked the next reservoir in the chain Penygarreg a source of water for Birmingham for a mere 15 days. It was a magnificent site complete with some marooned sheep on an island in its middle. They evidently got there when the water was low in the summer but what with waters rising they could no longer cross back over to the mainland. As I observed the strange scene I wondered how much food there was for them to eat.
Further South I came by my turning off the road, which would see me amble, first through the Graig Dolfaenog gorge with the course of the Elan below, then through an ancient Oak woodland part of the scant 10% remaining in the country. It was a magical space imbued with gnarly old trees the growth of which was predominantly stunted as a result of the harsh conditions and altitude. They were without doubt a breed apart invoking a sense distinguished from my normal Oak experience on account of the gorge like space in addition.
After actually sitting in Garreg Ddu reservoir, which was low I headed on over to the church where Paul and I once signed the visitor’s book. I could glimpse it amid the hill and trees from my vantage point, which would have seen me submerged in water any other time. It was an odd feeling considering its actual depth but one that enabled me to appreciate the finite essence of water in drought.
At the church, once removed from the valley piece by piece and placed at the foot of Cefn Llanerchi 438 meters, I signed the 2018 book remembering my visit with Paul. The 2016 book had been removed but I was happy with the visit, which concluded with me sitting on the churches front bench we had sat on some two years before admiring the view of Garreg Ddu where I had just come from. I contemplated our life together and felt a mix of deep emotions as deep as the reservoir itself.
Nearing the Elan visitor centre, and almost at the end of my walk, I am greeted once more by the Shrewsbury guys who I had met earlier nearby Craig Goch. We spoke of what a cracking day it was and what a time they had had on the tops mountain biking. It was the friendliest encounter, which was matched by the epic and pleasing view across to the Claerwen Valley that held so many good memories for me when Paul and I had an equally friendly encounter with Meirion an old Welsh boy camped up in his van at the foot of the reservoir by the same name. Then in 2016 he cooked us breakfast before our hike up to the source of the Irfon that felt as hearty as the Shrewsbury lads that now waved goodbye before I reached the visitor centre below.
A quick visit in this information hub lead me over and passed the old Victorian bridge situated not far from Elan village, which was built to house workers constructing the reservoirs over 100 years before my arrival. I cannot walk through without remembering Paul it’s just the way it is on this hike having both laid eyes upon the village here. It’s a pleasant scene and reflection but with just a few more miles to go I don’t stop long.
A mile down the road I decide to take the interesting route to the confluence of the Elan with the Wye, which is by now a short 2 KM East as the crow flies. I want something bordering on spectacular! The Carn Gafallt range of hills which rise to over 400 meters present such an opportunity. It means taking the walk wide, up and over but it constitutes more map reading and what I hope to be a great view of the confluence below. As I reach Bwlch Coch and the Wye Valley walk beyond I wasn’t disappointed by the emergence of Gwastedyn Hill 477 Meters on the Left bank and opposite side of the Wye for below me was a grand pastoral section of the Wye Valley stretching out far and wide with Rhayader at its head. The views do indeed belong to those willing to step off the beaten track I thought.
After exploring a fascinating old abandoned cottage on the side of the hill it wasn’t hard to locate the Elans confluence with the Wye down below. I knew the general direction and all it took was a quick check of the map. I was speaking to Paul all the way saying things like, ‘here we are Paul. Wow what a place! Do you get this bro?’ With the Elan coming in from my left to join a sudden turn left of the Wye the scene was enchanting as it resembled perfect union with a Wye now swelled by mountain waters that I had once again immersed myself in. Like that of the Wye receiving the Elan it was a deeply spiritual journey that saw life flow into me without protest. Paul my dear twin was part of that natural flow and he will forever walk with me as none of us never really walk alone when we consider our connection to the source of all things where life springs forth like that of a river. As I look upon the Elan joining the Wye I therefore feel strongly my perpetual union to, not just the land around me, but Paul also thanks once again to a river of the Wye.
Written by Mark Jickells © 2018