River Marteg Diary
Wednesday 17th - Saturday 21st September 2019
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12 Miles River 30 Miles Total
Source Grid Ref: SO 035797
Confluence Grid Ref: SN 951714
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Solo Hike Through Awesome Wales. River Marteg
Reading Coming Donw the Wye. R Gibbings
I began the trip to the Marteg in Rhayader the small mountain town on the Eastern fringe of the Cambrian mountains one of the most rugged of all Welsh mountain ranges. It was a pleasant evening when I arrived with not a hint of bad weather in sight.
Quickly my thoughts turned to visiting old places familiar to Paul and I. I knew where I wanted to go before getting my head down in the church porch I always return to when in Rhayader and so off I went with some chips and sausage in hand purchased from Evans Plaice said to make the finest chips in.......
all Mid Wales. It sounds like I know nothing of the quality of their chips, which wouldn’t be the truth on account of myself and a friend stopping by there back in 2017. Then I sampled them for the first time after visiting the source of the Wye and summiting Plynlimon. They were very nice indeed giving me the heads up as to where to go whenever in Rhayader.
With my chips and sausage in hand as well as a well-brewed cup of tea, which the girls resonated with I headed for the 1970’s looking Pavilion beside the Wye on the outside of town in Waun Capel Park. Before reaching there, I decided to eat my chips and sausage and drink my tea on a table beneath a shelter outside the front of the ‘Lost Arc’ live music venue again more or less beside the Wye.
It was beginning to get fresh so I sat there with a couple of layers on remembering, as I dipped into my chips now dressed with some red sauce, the time I met Paul one of the venue founders. Then I had finished walking the River Elan from source and had stopped by the venue to read the sign displaying venue details. With a wall of about 4 Feet high to its immediate rear, I said, ‘here we are Paul next to that venue we checked out last time we were here back in Aug 2014.’ I was, of course, talking to my brother Paul but to my surprise a man appeared from behind the wall and said, ’yes what is it?’ He’d been crouching down and so I never saw him. It turned out that his name was Paul too, which inspired a most enthusiastic connection and conversation. As I remembered that time it still strikes me how slim the odds were invoking within ideas as to the nature of divinity.
At the Pavilion later I spoke to my brother Paul nearly the whole time I was there. It was a pleasant evening with mobile campers pitched below beside the Wye alongside the town’s sporting facility complete with a very fine Basketball court. As I talked and reminisced the light faded providing the opportunity for all the stars to shine in their twinkling splendour because here amid the Cambrian Mountains there is little light pollution. It was iridescent both outside and within as I breathed in the clean night air also. My connection to nature, ordinary life, and my twin was clear and unfettered, which was a satisfaction that propelled me forward to my place of rest for the night amid a church porch that was, yet again, special to me on account of Paul and I resting there back in August 2014. Aaah, Rhayader I’m beginning to love this place - it feels like home!
In the morning after a good night’s sleep in the church porch, I headed for Llangurig a little under 10 miles to the.......
North. I got off the bus to what was a glorious morning the type that inspires optimism. With a brief visit to the Wye just outside of Wales’s highest village at over 1,000 feet I return to the village having remembered once more another time there with Paul. In fact, it looked unchanged with the village and its church in the distance as the Wye flowed gently by in the foreground. I’m happy for these connections, which are the result of our combined activity in the Wye catchment. There isn’t anywhere in its whole 4,000 square Kilometres that doesn’t offer up a moment in time that we spent together. Before my traverse to Glan-Y-Rhyd the small home of Robert Gibbings, the author of the classic book ‘Coming Down the Wye’ and then my traverse to the Marteg, I honour and cherish my life with Paul, which imbues my hikes now with a reverence for life previously not known such is the potency of my twins departure.
The rambling hills that lead to the home of Robert Gibbings are as pleasant as the meetings with locals. There just outside of the village moving bales of hay into a barn brought in from Cheltenham is a young farmer getting ready for winter. We chat briefly about farming and my grandparents who were farmers in the village of Hope Under Dinmore in North Herefordshire the location of which he knew. Beyond I met an elderly lady and her daughter who have lived at Maesgwyn for 20 years having moved into the area from the South. They’re walking a horse and a donkey and are happy to escort me to their home through which my right of way lay.
The start is turning out to be good as I imagine the life of Robert Gibbings. He must have trod these hills I thought or this very route on his way to and from the village and indeed had similar encounters. I was filling up with a satisfaction that only pilgrimage can inspire, which is what this was on account of my love for the book and respect for the author.
As I crested the hill, I saw the Marshes Pool, which I read about in the book. He describes the nature, the peace, and fascination that the pool invokes both in summer and winter. I gaze upon it visualizing moments that must have inspired his writings about the Wye. I’m as tranquil as the waters before me and as I feel the serenity of the space rising within, I notice simultaneously in the distance Glan-Y-Rhyd on the North-Eastern side of the pool. I stand looking at what was HQ for Robert Gibbings as he wrote ‘Coming Down the Wye.’ It’s small tucked away at the base of a spruce plantation, which is mixed with broadleaf. This has all the hallmarks of a retreat the kind Robert Gibbings savoured in his pursuit for meditation and solitude.
The cottage is all locked up but it retains much of the character of old. The stone steps that lead to the front door I imagine are the same as are the red brick tiles beneath the porch that surrounds the stone-built cottage. It’s sturdy but quaint, to say the least, which is a pleasing sight in the glorious morning sun that immediately inspires thoughts of living there myself. I walk around and see Robert inside writing passages and engraving because all illustrations in the book are engraved in wood by him for, he was a master wood engraver and founder of the ‘Society of Wood Engravers.’
Sitting beside the cottage fire pit for a while thinking of Paul in addition, I eat some trail mix and get hydrated for my 16-mile approach walk to the source of the Marteg. I knew it was going to be a fair distance but I wanted to experience the backcountry alongside the Wye Valley. Robert Gibbings would have sauntered these kinds of distances, which I to find no problem. It’s all a mindset that folks back then knew well.
The backcountry does not disappoint as it is made up of remote farm operations the type ordinary people do not see up here and deep wooded valleys down below. On top wind turbines rotate in an ethereal world of their own whilst tucked away in small plantations to obscure the wind and provide some shelter from the harsh weather are old abandoned cottages once occupied by shepherds and or subsistence farmers. The occupiers will have no doubt been as friendly as the farmer I had just previously seen who gave me water as he ate his mid-day lunch. Plonk in the bottle went the high5 electrolytes as I am one for replacing the salts in my body as well as the fluids. It’s important when carrying 32 pounds on your back over distance because you can find yourself worn out as a result of continual sweat and so, therefore, salt deficiency. Indeed, the body needs them to repair the muscles that are being ripped as you hike up and then down these rugged high hills and valleys all of which feed the Wye.
Just down the road from a proud standing stone I admired there was Trevor at Nantgwyn who was very pleasant. He was an elderly gentleman in his 80’s sat outside the front of his home with a straw hat on for shade. He was originally a Black Country man who had moved into the very same house some 40 years before. I was beginning to see that the area was populated by many incomers as the locals would call them. Looking around it’s no wonder. The lack of traffic, frenetic beings or noise pollution is enough to entice anyone or maybe not as it depends on what you value. Trevor and I value the peace, which is a resonance we both part with leaving him and me happy to have been acquainted.
Over the hill passed Cynch Mawr and now onto the road, I come across another abandoned cottage. This time it’s complete with an old piano festooned in dust and the grime of years whilst it stood idle. Once it would have resounded about the place as the local farming folk no doubt sang songs in their native Welsh tongue, which is something Robert Gibbings notes in his book as he describes one New Year’s Eve when local farmers and their families visited his home to bring him some new year cheer. Then the piano played as the men beat their hands to a rhythm akin to a tribal drum as the daughters closed their eyes to drift off to a faraway place whilst all sang to the tune of the land around them. He remarked that he was with people that loved the same things he loved and felt no longer alone. Standing looking at the piano I imagined something similar, which gave me heart to know of the myriad of lives that have lived and died in what is now the Marteg Valley.
Approaching the source of the Marteg I am immersed in a commercial plantation forest on Brondre Fawr Hill, which rises to just over 500 meters. I’m tired but spurred on in the knowledge that camp is not far away. But first I have to find my way through this plantation a tricky prospect as I have overshot a path. I orientate the map and decide to cut through what looks to be a way through to the Eastern fringe of the plantation where a track should await me. As it gets thicker, I wonder if I have made the right decision because I know what these high hill plantations can be like. They’re not just dense they can also be challenging underfoot on account of the deep bogs that accumulate. There beautiful for.......
sure what with the resplendent green Sphagnum moss that envelopes your boot with each step or the strips of moss that hang off the branches of the spruce as if decorated by Christmas tinsel. The air too is cool and the whole place draws in your senses as you find yourself cocooned in this nether world of organic cool earthy scent and the sight of different shades of green.
Finally, I reach the track, which leads me to the top of the hill that’s surprisingly coated in short grass ideal for camping as it has no sheep grazing upon it either. This means no-poo or sheep willing to eat my overnight cold-soaked breakfast, which has happened on the Blorenge near Abergavenny to the South. I stand and survey my options. Just down a bit on its Western slope and it should be concealed enough what with the plantation to my side and below also. I respect the farming folk but I need to camp near source to get this project done. If I asked everyone it would take an age so I am in stealth mode and indeed respect mode as I seek to leave with no trace of me ever having been there.
A little spot for my pitch emerges with only a subtle lean. I may slide a bit but not much. The evening is perfect as the sun descends beyond Cwm Llygod and Domen Ddu at 553 meters. It reminds me of observing the Supermoon on the River Trothy hike in November 2016 just 6 days before Paul’s death. Then the big red moon descended early morning beyond the Skirrid near Abergavenny. I feel divine once more amid the sunset and the natural splendor of the wide Marteg Valley below, which is winding its way towards the Cambrian Mountains to the West that loom large over the Wye as the Marteg enters it below the mighty Gamallt. The sunset and views are that magnificent up here I stand infused with appreciation and longing – longing for Paul. I wish he were here experiencing this too. Suddenly facing the vast open space in front of me I call out to his ever present spirit, ‘Paaaauuuuul, Paaaauuuuul, Paaaauuuuul. Love you brother.’
The night was without any incident. There was no storm, no wind to speak of and no sheep raiding my cold-soaked breakfast. I don’t tend to heat my breakfast, which consists of porridge, powdered milk, Goji berries, and Chia Seeds. Cold is as good if not better than hot or warm considering the fact I don’t waste water cleaning up my crusader mug that may otherwise have burnt porridge at the bottom of it. My way is a resourceful, quick and efficient way.
Packed up and the morning says it’s going to be a good day. Earlier to the East as a Red Kite circled overhead wind turbines on distant hills rotated fully immersed in the deep rich red produced by a sizzling sun. There was a kind of ultrasound as they turned and the sun rose steadily behind them. All circular, in essence, the Sumerians sprung to mind as they were responsible for the 360 degrees in the measurement of circles some 2,500 BC. Then they would observe.......
the five visible planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. They didn’t do this for any scientific purpose but omens. However, in the course of observing the planets, they noticed the circular track of the Sun's annual path across the sky calculating that it took 360 days to complete. Looking at the turbines rotating in their circular motion and the sun rising I was in awe of the connection to that time and this technology one. Unusually on this fine morning atop Brondre Fawr circles seem to be the prominent feature because 800 meters to the North from where I’m stood is Fowler’s Armchair and a stone circle dating back to about the same time. I was heading that way!
Fowler’s stone armchair, named after a giant’s seat, was indeed armchair looking. It was accompanied by 3 stones said to be five but I could not find the other 2. As a circle it was disappointing but only yards to the South of these was a proper looking stone circle. The keystones looked old but I did ponder its authenticity. Had they been placed here by Victorian enthusiasts? Whatever the case it was beautiful, old and round and what with the Marteg Valley below it made for an evocative sight amid this rugged and remote land.
Nearing the source, I saw a farmer doing his sheep rounds in a large blue 4 wheel drive the kind you would see on an American high street. I wondered if I had the ‘right of Way.’ In fact, I knew I was a bit off so I waved him down from a distance. Each approaching slowly as if gluing something important together we finally came into contact with a greeting best described as out of the ordinary. He’s.......
not used to seeing to many walkers up here and I wasn’t expecting to see him either. Rhydion was a kind and friendly fellow though who was only too willing to tell me stories of the old times and the realities of farming.
He told me that he was checking on the sheep for ailment and other such things. Bound to be ill if you don’t check on em,’ He said. He elaborated by saying that the baby lambs had been on some good fresh grass and were almost ready to go. Without doubt, he meant ready to go to slaughter. With talk of his family that’s life up here; they make our food that’s then packaged neatly for the consumer the majority of which don’t even know that Rhydion is here in all weathers tending to the animals. As a matter of fact, many don’t see beyond the packaging, which is strange because when I shop, I see the source of my food as a result of my activities amid the Wye rivers. Every time I’m out here, therefore, I’m instilled within a deeper connection to my food and somewhat of a healthier meal.
After bidding Rhydion goodbye it’s off to the source of the Marteg itself. I am nearby within 200 meters. I climb a style and meander my way through a very young plantation, which has been planted upon a plateau beneath Crugyn Llwyd at 571 meters. It reminds me of the Big Dipper in Blackpool, which we enjoyed when attending the National Swimming Championships one year. There populated by young saplings was the seemingly flat wide-open ground, which dropped away, not sharply but enough to render the immediate valley below concealed by the hill’s sudden descent and my height. It was a marshy boggy start to the river, which made me feel almost marooned as I was stood fairly central with two high hills, one to my left and another to my right, with a valley beckoning to be explored to my front.
Down below I descended further into the Cwm meaning valley to discover the embryonic waters of the Marteg. As I neared the trickling sound of the river springing forth baby like from the plateau above, I became surrounded by chest height.......
bracken. Thoughts of ticks arise but mostly it’s pleasant wading through. The trickle I now admired was from the seepage that the spongy plateau could no longer hold within its mass. Gravity made sure of the water’s descent and accumulation, which now served as an ideal spot for me to filter some water so as to rehydrate.
Knelt there beside the babbling waters at the source I immersed myself in the ritualistic act of filtering or making ready water. ‘This is precious stuff,’ as Paul would say to which I would agree. The sound alone allows you to know its life-giving properties. We are after all 70% water meaning what I am seeing, listening to and feeling as I pour water from my small folding mug into the filter bladder is very much a part of me. I am water and it is me. What a thought to consider as I drink. There is no separation here. I am connected to this perennial nature and the primordial act of fetching water myself.
Later I meet with a farmer’s daughter Julia who gave me water as I had drunk my bottles worth and a religious pamphlet. The latter was nice of her to but I’m all faiths and none. Further down the valley I pass through Rhydion’s farm Baily Bog and impart my respects partly because of our meeting earlier and partly because of the discussion I had about ‘Right to roam’ with Gareth - Julia’s brother. He was on my case straight away and because I paused when he asked me the question regarding ‘right to roam,’ he took it that I was pro that manner of being, which I’m not. If I can I will stick to rights of way although, as if contradicting this, I will and do stealth camp as evidenced the night before. What can you do when exploring non-commercial rivers? Not much apart from tread as lightly as you can.
By now I am heading towards Bwlch-Y-Sarnau the first and former meaning pass or gap. When I arrive there, I happen across the Owain Glyndwr café, which a friendly local encourages me to use. I oblige him and am glad that I did.
The café situated in the village hall community centre was being tended to by two volunteers local to the area. The lady I spoke to said that a group of mountain bikers had booked the café but I was welcome to use the pop-up café at the front of the building, which I did coming away with a nice cup of coffee. With a few more pleasantries exchanged I stepped outside to drink my coffee to be greeted a short while after by the said group who were cycling up a track towards the centre as if emerging out of the wilderness. They were!
The contact was immediately friendly with the banter being traded about the ride and the bikes. They were cycling the Trans Cambrian Way something I didn’t know you could do. I was learning something about the area beyond that of farming. Here lay a land attractive to hard riding Mountain Bikers as well as hard walking hikers. Of course, I know of the Cambrian Mountains and their attractiveness to bikers and hikers but not this backcountry here. I was pleased to see them and to feel the energy being radiated by way of our meeting and all our outdoor activity. This is what life is about I thought.
Indeed, the boss or bike leader Polly echoed these sentiments as she said, ‘there is no better high.’ I couldn’t agree more. As we talked about our shared enthusiasm for the outdoors, she suddenly asked me a question, which took me by surprise. ‘You’re one of the twins, aren’t you?’ My reply was swift. ‘Yeah, I am - how do you know?’ She went onto tell me that she once lived in Hereford briefly and knew of our reputation. I said, ‘communities can make a person’s reputation as well as the individual.’ It was pleasant as was her sharp memory. Without a doubt, I was surprised to learn of her current life as she was surprised to learn of my passion namely the rivers of the Wye and long-distance backpacking.
As I said goodbye there was a look in her eye, which I took to be sorry. Sorry, not just for Paul’s loss, which I told her about, but sorry for getting us both wrong. That’s the way in life. If you stand out in a community the envious will seek to erode your light by any means. Mostly it’s by way of imparting inaccurate information that newcomers to a town like Polly are often susceptible to. Reacting poorly to the pressure of rumour rooted in envy the target can often add fuel to the lowly ideas being propagated. It’s a cycle Paul and I got to know well but it was one we managed to break away from bringing me into contact with Polly years down the line. Out here in the middle of nowhere, that spoke volumes as to how far I had come and how far Paul had come before his premature death. Meeting Polly reminded me of the hardship I went through with Paul. I miss him terribly and am sorry that he’s not here to see this good life evolve further. Perhaps he is but I have no physical proof of that only the omens and messages that I see direct from spirit, which the Sumerians would no doubt understand to.
At Pant-Y-Dwr the latter meaning water I met another Black Country man who had lived in the area for many years. It seems the Midlands feels at home in Mid Wales, which makes sense considering the Elan Valley reservoirs a few miles West were built to supply Birmingham with water. Paul and I learned more of this association during our River Irfon hike in 2016 that started beneath the largest of the reservoirs Claerwen. Prior to bivvying in the toilet there and meeting our now good friend Meirion from South Wales we had visited the Elan Valley visitor centre, which clearly illustrated the emergence of this vast infrastructure and the natural world that surrounds it. Birmingham and the midlands will certainly be connected to this part of Wales for many more years to come, which is something echoed in the Black Country lives now being lived out here.
Further down the road, I get the chance to speak with two locals standing in a garden. They’re both wonderful simple Welsh country cottage folk who are only too pleased to look at some photos of Paul as I tell them of our river Wye project. They impart uncomplicated wisdom about loss that somehow makes me feel not so abandoned because this has been a difficult process. The world doesn’t stop still for one person and because we had no children or didn’t get married, I have been left alone largely to deal with it. Nature and the rivers have helped as has the fact that Paul left me with an unfinished project. How could I join him? I was left with something to finish. Crafty bugger I thought. He bugs out knowing full well I’d be unable to leave the Wye unfinished. Well, after the Marteg there is only one Wye river left out of the whole catchment and that is the Wye itself, which I have more or less done in sections. I’ll have done all 20 then covering almost 700 miles. ‘Can you hear me, Paul? I’ll have explored and walked them all.’
Quickly passing through St Harmon as if ‘village bagging’ I head for Gilfach 3.5 KM down the road. It’s another road bash that has a nasty habit of making the underside of my feet soar especially when the boots are new as these Scarpa are. They’re a top rate Italian boot – one of the best but the soles are like concrete. My feet will toughen to them but it will take a fair few miles of hiking roads before they do so. This then is a chance to train, which Lofty (Wiseman) would no doubt approve of because he sponsored 1 boot.
I mentioned this in the Ithon Diary on how I went to visit Lofty to show him my new purchase. I went onto explain that I used to share these things with Paul but he’s no longer here. So, I went to see Lofty a family friend of many years. Out the blue, he said, ‘how much were they, Mark?’ I told him not thinking about it, which invoked a surprising response from Lofty. From a draw, he turned around and said, ‘Here you are that’s for 1 boot.’ It’s was £100. Well, I know Lofty wouldn’t do that if he didn’t think I had worked for it. He knows I’m out here now still working for it. Indeed, it’s hard going, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally also. Paul’s loss has sucked it right out of me and I have had to dig deep to get the project finished. I’ll make him proud and Lofty I know I will. There is no stopping me I will continue and find a way to complete what we set out to do. For this, it takes a little help from people such as Lofty but mostly it’s down to me. So, with soar feet and a heavy heart a lot of the time I head for Gilfach a nature reserve said to be one of the most beautiful places in all of the Cambrians.
At Gilfach I meet a couple from Portsmouth who are camped in their van in the impressive Cwm or valley that is shaped by two 475-meter tops Gamallt and Yr Wylorn. They’re not the highest but they are shear and give the impression of being in a vast canyon. We are all in agreement that this is a fully immersive experience not to be missed. It’s simply spell bounding in the early evening sun. As we talk about life and adventure, I’m offered a sachet of coffee and as I’m leaving moments later a chocolate and nut ice cream. I am over the moon with their kindness. With a hearty goodbye and some well-wishing, I head for the Marteg waterfalls that were recommended by them. There I enjoy my ice cream, think of Paul and.......
imagine the salmon spawning in the autumn soon to come. They swim up here jumping the rapids as they do so. If I can I’ll be back to observe it because it is one of the natural wonders of the Wye system. First, come the fry, then the parr and then the smalts. Only 10% survive into the second year, which gives you some idea as to how many may reach the sea. It’s a hard life in dimensions beyond that of our own realm. Mind you I imagine they enjoy swimming too.
Crossing the road out of Gilfach and onto the A470 I’m getting excited to see the confluence of the Marteg with the Wye. I’ve seen it once before with Paul when we passed by here on our August 2014 hike to the Wye source. It’s the first time back since then. Looking left to right I nip across the road spotting first the old stone bridge that served as the main Rhayader road back in the day before the A470. They’ve retained it allowing it to sit as some kind of memorial next to the now busy A road. I’m jettisoned back to when we were set to walk the busy A road for more than a kilometre South to get to a footbridge we wanted to cross. Standing there the traffic fades away as I’m plunged into in the moment. My goodness, the feeling is visceral! It turned out that the bridge further South was condemned meaning we had to wade across. It provided us with a fabulous experience though and a visual imprint that will never leave me. There is so much here to be thankful for not least the onfluence of the Marteg with the Wye as it’s another beautiful mountain stream meeting with a river that’s inspired millions.
Gazing down at the river I notice the rocky bed and the grey speckled boulders due to moss cover, possibly brought in by the last ice age. It’s shallow but sings to the tune of the Upper Wye, which is a water world that few get to know so intimately something I’d like to change. The water bounces, bows, bends, curves, murmurs,
chatters gayly and glistens as it melds with the Wye without hesitation. I’m once again buoyed by this meeting of waters something Paul always loved to see to. In many respects, it’s like climbing a mountain. This for Paul, as it is for me, is the summit!
Turning away with one last look I head for a bridge only yards away. Paul and I crossed it in 2014 not knowing that we could have walked a road into Rhayader on the same side before crossing. The area was transcendental then for it had just rained forcing all the plants into full radiance. The oaks that arched over the Wye and still do now dripped with water that created ever-expanding rings on the surface of the gin-clear Wye to our front. I wanted to see this place again and stand where we stood. Aaaah there it is – the place that touched us so deeply back then. It’s a special place right opposite the Marteg confluence, which I now know but didn’t consciously then.
Stood there invoking the keenest sense of our life together I know instantly that this is where I’m going to camp for the night. ‘Paul I’m here bro opposite the Marteg where we stood that once. I’m going to camp here and speak with you,’ I called out softly.
With Paul’s Nordisk tent pitched I’m set to walk into the middle of the Wye to get some shots of the Marteg. I can see it there right in front of the camp, which is situated among the gnarly oaks that have populated this valley for hundreds of years. I look around and at the water, I am about to wade into. It’s perfect! The camp is flat, green, water-bound with the Wye and Marteg below and with me is Paul’s spirit in every rock, blade of grass, sound, and tree. I am in heaven albeit with a heart yet to heal fully.
The water is frigid giving me a pleasurable tingle as it reverberates throughout my being. I go steady with a wooden staff because the water is deeper than I thought. The force of it creates a wave around my legs threatening to soak my rolled-up jeans, which are just above my knees. I’ve gone far enough so I stand still in the middle of the Upper Wye river with the Marteg within touching distance. It’s almost as if the Marteg is Paul. I can see him but not quite touch him. It’s always tantalizing! I’m happy to get this close though to another Wye river that has given me much joy. I’ll be back here again to admire the beauty and the memory, which I know will never fade.
Written by Mark Jickells