Tuesday, February 27, 2024

peat repeat

You'll recall my frustration at being thwarted in my plans to do a long circular walk in the Black Mountains back in May of last year. As I unexpectedly had a couple of days' leave to use up I found myself at a loose end yesterday and decided to go and have another crack at it. After the extreme fuckery involved with trying to pick out a route up through the forestry last time I decided to keep any involvement with it minimal this time, and not get involved with the area I was in last time at all. 

There are two car parks on the road up the Grwyne Fawr valley, the first being Pont Cadwgan where I parked last time, and the second, further up towards the reservoir, which just seems to be called Mynydd Du (Black Mountain). This is where I parked this time and headed up in a roughly north-east direction to get onto the long ridge just before the summit of Chwarel y Fan, which makes the rather grandiose claim to being the highest point in Monmouthshire. I mean, I daresay it is, but it's not a summit in any real sense, just the high point of the ridge which gradually descends from north-west to south-east. It does have a cairn, though. 

So the first thing you'll notice here is that I'm attacking the walk anticlockwise, rather than clockwise which was the intention last time (not that you'd know from the route map). This is partly because the car park is on that side of the road, partly because most of the clearly-visible paths from near the car park head in that direction (and I was keen to get a fast start and defer any navigational fuckery until later) and partly because my loose rule-of-thumb for walks dictates having the high points (the summits of Waun Fach and Pen y Gadair Fawr) in the second half of the walk. 

Anyway, once on the ridge the route proceeds almost dead straight north-west towards the trig point at the summit of Rhos Dirion (at 713 metres, 2339 feet) - again, a summit in name only as it just marks the point where the long ridge ends and drops off the steep northern face of the Black Mountains escarpment. At this point you turn 90 degrees left along the ridge that heads up over Pen y Manllwyn towards Waun Fach, which, as I'm sure you'll remember from 2010, is the highest point in the Black Mountains. You'll also recall that when I went up it then it was after a period of very dry weather and it was still a treacherous boggy nightmare on the summit plateau. Well, I'm pleased to be able to tell you that the National Park authorities, starting in what seems to have been around 2015, have done some extensive restoration work and landscaping on the top of Waun Fach and the surrounding area, created an understated summit monument (with a little OS logo embedded in it, just so you know it's legit) and laid some paths by dumping what a quick back-of-a-fag-packet calculation suggests must have been SEVERAL GAJILLION TONNES of stone and gravel up there. Before and after summit pics (i.e. from 2010 and yesterday) are below. 

In addition to being able to stand at the summit for a photo without gradually slurping knee-deep into a peat bog, you can now walk along a pleasant gravel path across the summit plateau and (via a bit of down and up again and, yesterday, quite a bit of slightly slippery ice and snow) to the neighbouring summit of Pen y Gadair Fawr, which is a much more satisfying mountain summit but happens to be about ten metres lower than Waun Fach. I don't make the rules. From there you drop off the east face of Pen y Gadair Fawr for a steepish descent back down to the Grwyne Fawr valley. Suspicions of further navigational fuckery which arise as you approach what appears to be an unbridged and unfordable section of river at the bottom of the slope are curtailed as the path takes a sharp right turn along the riverbank to a footbridge which takes you back onto the road and back to the car park. 

Overall, a round trip of around 18.3 kilometres or 11.4 miles, considerably shorter than the original walk would have been (this post suggests the full circuit from Pont Cadwgan via the trig points on Crug Mawr and Bal Mawr is about 20 miles) but more than enough on a chilly February day. Considering the time of year the weather was pretty good - high cloud, no rain - but it was quite windy most of the way round. Not as bad as on this trip up Pen y Fan, but still a bit exhausting after a while.

Back up a bit though, Dave, you'll be saying: what about this whole path-landscaping thing? I'm slightly uncomfortable about that. Shouldn't we just leave the landscape to do its thing without constraining it and making life easier for people? No-one has to go up there, you know; if you don't fancy getting your boots muddy maybe you should just stay at home and do some macrame or something. What next? A train up, like on Snowdon?

I see what you mean, but bear in mind that the previous set of prevailing conditions up on top of Waun Fach in particular - vast expanses of black mud, everyone taking their own route to try and keep their boots dry and trampling all the plant life - was a man-made thing as well, and one of the reasons for constraining people to walk a nice dry path is that now everyone goes the same way, stops eroding the peat and trampling all the wildlife and lets the rest of the summit plateau return to its former state. And what about the paths elsewhere? Would you have those removed as well? It'd make mountain hiking a considerably slower and more tedious business. No, we just have to make the best of the situation we find ourselves in. And, after all, when you think about it, it's a lot, it's a lot, it's a lot, it's a lot, it's a lot, it's a lot, it's a lot LIKE LIFE.

Route map and altitude profile are below. Open in a new tab for larger versions, as always, and note that the altitudes are 50-odd metres too high. This seems to be a feature of my phone's GPS rather than the visualisation software. 

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