River Wye - to Severn
136 Miles river hike Sat September 26
2020 (Walk ended Monday 5th Oct 2020)
Source Grid Ref: SN 802-871 interactive map click above/tap in grid ref. 4 OS Explorer 214
Before the majestic views of the Cambrian Mountains that span off into the distance, before the sounds of the mountain waters cascading down from up high, before the summit, it’s rocky cairn, shelter, worn out trig point and meetings with people, before the deep foreboding gully’s of the Plynlimon massif or the extraordinary connections at source with river men and Cambrian Way trekkers we set off with the blessings of our mothers who were there on account of loss and hard journeys in life endured.
It was a touching moment what with Paul my dear twin brother foremost in mine and my mothers mind. He was meant to be walking this penultimate river with me but back in 2916 after walking 11 of the Wye rivers he departed this world leaving me to finish the river walks without him. I had cried on top of them hills, at them river sources and shouted out his name knowing that his spirit would hear me. And he was here now, in our hearts and in our coming together at Eisteddfa Gurig where Andy, my walking buddy, was overjoyed with his own mothers’ presence because he too had experienced tough times.
Under way the mountain sound and air soon took over to imbue that child like mind once more. Excitement coursed through our beings igniting awe and wonder as we greeted the first of the Wye rivers the Afon Tarennig cascading down to the Wye at Pont Rhydgaled. Paul and I would love such things and as I walked it wasn’t lost on me his absence. Continuing on Plynlimon summit and the source of the Wye our starting point for the 136 miles of the Wye Valley Walk was another 3 KM away to the North. For now, the company of Andy and familiar mountain streams was more than enough to ignite once more that joy.
Suddenly amid our reflections upon the track that leads you on passed the old lead mine established in 1865 we came across the first people of the day a man and woman of about 37 years of age who were from Cheshire, which was a coming together that was to prove somewhat of a pattern for the walk.
As expected, the views continued to shift and move as we ascended the mountain invigorating us further as they did so. As is always the case when hiking transition was a definite part of our destiny.
At the old lead mine to our right where tips, leats, shaft entrances, an old tramway and spoil heaps remained we took a left onto a discernible trail and headed for the Plynlimon summit. It’s a good navigational feature to note the old lead mine for the scar that it basically is cannot fail to alert you to the sudden turning left. Conversations here can and have been about the hardships endured by the miners, which are indeed well noted in historical texts. The weather here can be foul but today it’s the brightest of days without a cloud in sight almost. Plynlimon summit is bathed in potential as we visualize the views we are likely to be greeted by as yet another wooden marker post all gnarly and worn and cairn beckons confidently to the 752 meter trig point itself all worn and weathered.
Stopping to admire the Easterly views into the Wye Valley down below we orientate ourselves and sense distance and scale. The highest village in Wales at 275 meters Llangurig is beyond as is the Midlands and Birmingham. It’s a magnificent sight to behold one that Robert Gibbings Author of ‘Coming Down the Wye’ would have relished to on a good day.
Picking our way through the oldest rocks in the whole Wye system that adorn the moon like surface we climb the steps bridging the fence that separates us from the summit shelter forever dependable in the poorest of weather. It never fails to impress me the myriad of rock and stone that goes to make up this oval oasis in what is an almost featureless part of Wales. The winds up here can be like a loud sound penetrating thick walls. They know no boundaries and certainly have no respect for the bodies of those in the way on a bitterly cold and wet day. Inside all that is another world but poke your head up and your soon reminded that the ravenous winds have not gone away. It’s easy to stay cocooned inside for a long time but sooner or later you have to get going otherwise you might become frozen in time like the rock.
Touching the Summit trig point Andy and I savour the moment for it’s his first time up there and my first time with him. I’ve been here with two other friends and of course Paul the dearest of them all but this is special to because finally were on our way to walk the Wye from source the last of the rivers, which has proven an odyssey like no other what with the loss of my twin along the way. An adventure is said to be full of the unexpected and this was proving to be so with Andy present to because he was and is an old school friend from over 36 years ago who has appeared like magic out of the abyss of grief and loneliness. Here suddenly is another walking buddy that resonates with all that I value.
Tragically for him he has found himself separated from his family after many years of solid union. He misses them desperately but returned home to find his feet and a way back to them. Having found sanctuary in Kington after a brief spell homeless he took to walking and then walking and camping when he met me amid the intimate and close-knit life of Hereford. The Wye Explorer project and the rivers walked appealed to his sense of rediscovery and so we got together to explore all that is healing about the rivers and walks. Similar to Paul and I we explored the potential in the rivers and the healing in nature. Separation can be the most crippling of experiences as you search for how to bridge the divide between you and your loved ones. The space at times simply cannot be bridged in which case their life appears locked away rendering you in a prison where a perpetual hunt for a key to connection and memory resides. It’s the most exhausting of processes but it’s one that’s helped by the flowing waters and the energizing vibrations of the woods, valleys and mountains. It’s here where life is where you are reminded of their spirit. In fact, it’s where their spirit is in reality because spirit is no myth it is the sum of all movement and it’s where they are as a sound, a scent or an old route invokes their presence once more whilst renewing your own sense of self.
Stoked to be on the healing journey together we are open to all that comes our way including gruff stubble loaded mountain men like Andrew who speaks of outdoor authors inspiring to his own sense of self. Soon Will Renwick the president of the Ramblers Cymru joins us at the summit whereupon the Cambrian Way is spoken of as the most epic of walks in Wales and even the UK. It was the moist unusual and spirited of starts, which compelled us to move on with good vibes invoked once more. This is another reason why we come outdoors, why we walk rivers and why we camp. It’s the quality of the people we meet.
Descending down to the huge saddle or Plateau depending on how you see it we pass by Llyn Llygad a reservoir nestled at the base of steep sided crags menacing to the observer. It is in fact the source of the River Rheidol, which flows down a wild glen before reaching the River Ystwyth and the estuary at Aberystwyth, which drains into cardigan Bay.
There is the Severn also that rises in Plynlimon it being the largest watershed in Wales as measured by the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology in Bangor. It’s a moss laden world up here where pools of water sit forming peat 2 meters thick and rills fed by gravity that make there way to the very sources of the rivers that makes this mountain famous.
Nearby the Wye source, which is situated in the third of three huge gullies we scout briefly and are then greeted by a small depression in the grassy slope that is the Wye source proper. ‘A pool no
bigger than a bowler hat.,’ Robert Gibbings said. He was right it is small almost womblike with its neatly stacked stone and rock semi-circular in shape. Above overhanging grasses form a fringe the type that’s not been cut for a while lending it a shabby appearance yet fitting for this wild and remote place.
It’s dry today meaning them pools and the plateau above has not received much rain. As we stand admiring the source and it’s majestic views that roll out almost endlessly to the East Andy can hear running water though indicating that the seepage has started lower down. No matter we are happy to be at the official source dry or not. We sit down beside the shabby bowler hat happy to be communing with one of Britain’s favourite rivers. There is no wind, no cloud above and no sound almost until that is a voice from above calls out to us. ‘Are you the tributary guys?’ Looking up we see a Welshman in shorts with a camera slung around his neck. ‘Yes we reply.’
Slowly does it we thought because we don’t want to break an ankle on wet grass or slip onto jagged rock. And anyway, I had some injuries namely a shin splint, an ankle impingement from an old injury and a slight strain in my Left knee Anterior Cruciate Ligament. It didn’t look good for 136 miles granted and I was worried prior to the walk but resolved to go steady and mindfully embodying what we coined, ‘compassionate hiking.’
As we descended, we passed by waters that in high spate would cascade over rocky ledges. The drop from source down to the Sweet Lamb is rapid normally giving rise to a dramatic start to the Wye. It should be alive, twisting, turning and plunging in response to the gravity. But today it’s like a trickle higher up. Not to be disappointed there is still a symphony of water conveying itself throughout the gully if you stand to listen. It’s not just the Wye for this is Plynlimon after all that permits numerous rills from off the steep slopes to feed the now growing Wye. The energy from all around is palpable as it to feeds your senses giving rise to an inspiration not found anywhere else.
Veering away from the Wye slightly we leave it down below a good choice as we become captivated by the views that were not available in the bowels of the gully. On top of a knoll we look to the South where the rest of the Cambrian Mountains reveal themselves or at least the walls of Y Glog and the surrounding peaks at nearly 600 meters that stand bold with scar like ravines cut jagged by water over millennia. Beyond is the desert of Wales that’s truly rugged with its peat bogs and its desolate foreboding sense. They do get you going inside as you stand in awe at this wonder of Mid Wales that’s peppered also by wind turbines.
Descending further Andy has a near on accident, which turns out to be the most perfect of self-rescues. He slips into the river off a bank but lands onto perfectly flat rock intended almost for his feet. It could have been bad in that he could have got soaking wet or worse break bones or hurt his head. Things were on his side though – no disaster today. But is does make you realize that you have to watch your footing when descending a mountain with no path.
The Wye Ravine just seems to get higher, steeper and more impressive as we make our way down. It doesn’t at all look like this from above. In fact, from above it resembles a ha ha where illusions of continual ground without a drop preside over a large landscaped garden. Here we feel the slopes either side and observe quietly in wonder. They envelope us emphasizing just how extensive the Plynlimon massif and the Wye source is.
Suddenly I turn a corner and am greeted by a memory that courses through my being instantly like sunlight breaking out from behind a cloud. There in front of me is the bend in the river where Paul and I first made contact in August 2014. Then we had never been to the source of the Wye and we were animated to be seeing it’s upper reaches for the first time. I said to him excitedly, ‘it’s the Wye maaan.’ He replied as a matter of fact whilst standing serenely, ‘yep.’ Oh, what a memory of my dear twin brother. We so loved being out here with each other and this familiar space has just brought it back acutely. Like the waters of the EDW entering the Wye at Aberedw there is no resistance to its influence. I simply stand in awe at my former life getting deeply emotional about it as I do so. Bemused yet thrilled I carry on after speaking with Paul because he’s always there showing himself in the most profound ways.
Before entering the Sweet Lamb Estate proper, we discuss a wise old tale called the ‘bear hunt,’ which describes a scenario where you cannot go over some objects or around them. The only option is to go through. We’re looking at yet another large bog field to negotiate. There’s no other choice we have to go through it meaning we call upon our steady footing and balance once more whilst watching out for big holes that can swallow your leg whole. Yes, it’s been a bog fest to but we are loving it.
Once into the estate we are struck, not only by the measuring facility that’s the preserve of the Hydrology and environment centre in Bangor, but the shear amount of pheasants appearing from all directions. This is factory game shooting where shooters receive the weapon from the loader one after the other. Bang, bang, bang all day they will go to satisfy their lust for killing. I eat game and have prepared meat since I was young but this is stocking gone wild and way over the top. They are like vermin scampering and flying away as we walk through a sea of birds.
The whole estate is characterized by industrial level land management and or farming. They had that many sheep one time they would hold their own sales. Thousands graze the slopes some on the very steepest as if like mountain goats resembling dots in the distance. There too amid the mountain’s tracks can be seen cut into their creating an unsightly scar. This is the GB Raleigh course expanded and developed by sweet lamb for the benefit of top flight Raleigh drivers who scream around the interior of Plynlimon amid the Wye that keeps flowing regardless of the disturbance. Here to is a testing facility for Raleigh brands. There’s no doubt it’s a fantastic playground but it’s one that has a huge impact upon the environment and river and behind closed doors almost because the outside world rarely comes here.
If the outside world hears about the Upper Wye it’s by way of censored programmes for TV that broadcast the more romantic side of the Wye and Plynlimon. One recently focused on a fisherman that was in a dream like reality as he navigated the rivers upper reaches, I search of the perfect time out. There was no mention of industrial farming, or factory killing or high-octane sports just the romance and the mention of an estate that was portrayed as the most cultivated. The reality is in fact very different although the scenes of steep slopes and a winding river are indeed beautiful minus the industrial farming estate with its fierce fiscal policy.
Almost through the estate we stop to watch a shepherd practice with his colly dog that’s darting here and there as it seeks to round the sheep in response to its trainers commands. It captivating and somewhat romantic but we know the harder side of this estate that will stop at nothing to extract everything out of the land. It has a shadow side. Later we chat to the shepherd who says, ‘it takes a generation to make a business and one to ruin it.’ He is right by the looks of things.
Handrailing the snake like Wye to our right we are almost out of the Plynlimon interior, which is still spectacular with high slopes looking down on us with the sparkle of the late sun as it descends beyond the tops. Everything is golden as the sunlight transforms the valley into a dramatic light show that only brown acid grass can create. The light passes through the trillions of blades illuminating the evening now transcendent in its brilliance. It’s ethereal and beautiful with super green to and as I connect with it in a trance, I turn back and remember Paul and I once more. I call out his name, Paul, Paul, Paul. Like the sun that seems to connect with everything alive I imagine my voice and spirit radiates outwards and inwards touching Paul wherever he is.
It’s been a fantastic hike from source and having passed through the Sweet Lamb HQ and crossed the road we quickly fill our bladders up from the Wye, which now greets the Tarennig the river that flowed quickly the opposite way to us as we headed for Plynlimon earlier on in the day. It to has been on its journey flowing passed Cae Gaer a roman fort that’s stood silently amid the mountains for nearly 2,000 years. These mountains have been occupied by camps for a long time and ours will shortly be yet another in a long list of camps amid a pass that wasn’t navigable until the 18th Century when what is now the A44 was built to connect the Midlands up with the West Coast of Wales. We like to think they are still remote and wild as we stop to gaze briefly upon an old Camp that Paul and I made use of some years before. It to has changed as the forestry commission have built a makeshift road through it signifying that nothing remains the same. Tonight, there will be more change as we tuck into a small enclosed plantation with two convenient flat spots for our tents. Only this change will be punctuated by the very best of extreme sleeps that we are always blessed by when camping beneath the stars, which are shining bright tonight as the Wye flows by only meters away from our pillows.
Joining us from above he goes onto explain that he’s a fan of rivers and has been looking for four sources that day. In fact, his name is Dewi and he is known as the ‘River Man,’ as revealed on one of the BBC’s wildlife programmes. What are the odds? He says he bumped into gruff Andy from the summit who told him about us. Keen to meet like minded people he made a b-line for the Wye where we were waiting. Shortly afterwards Will Renwick joined us as he had always wanted to find the source himself. Gazing upon the happy meeting at the source of the Wye with the sun shining on Plynlimon I couldn’t but help think of Paul and the special moment unfolding. This has got to be serendipity. No! More than it has to be higher forces at work here – perhaps even Paul. ‘Wow brother look at this. What a meeting.’
After we chatted about everything and anything regarding the outdoors especially its value to mental health, we got under way by descending the enormous gully that funnels the embryonic Wye all the way down through the Sweet Lamp Estate where we were heading, under the A44 and on through to Llangurig then Rhayader.